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C is for conquering cancer’s chill claws
CANCER – a word that focuses the mind like few others can. A word that brings with it fear, a sharp evaluation of what’s actually important in life, an altering of priorities.
No one wants to imagine what it’s like to be told you have that word, to realise that everything that you have taken for granted has changed, and is suddenly under threat.
It’s a conversation held on the margins.
“I think you reassess your values a little bit,” says Middleham trainer Jedd O’Keeffe. “Obviously you work out the things that are most important to you in life – for me that was my family and friends.
“The support we had was unbelievable. The amount of people that rallied round was quite incredible.”
O’Keeffe had the conversation at the end of 2010. Following a trip to an optician to look at deteriorating eyesight, which would eventually be diagnosed as diabetes, the trainer subsequently asked his doctor to feel a lump on his neck.
“He felt it and said ‘I don’t like the feel of that’,” he continues. “I was referred straight away to the hospital. The first time, after a test, they said it was just a saliva gland and it was fine. The second time, they did further tests, and revealed it was cancer.”
Cancer of the tonsil.
O’Keeffe adds: “I probably had a lump in my neck for, I’m embarrassed to say, about two years and did nothing about it. It was like when your glands come up after a cold and one just stayed swollen but it wasn’t painful and you couldn’t really see it.
“I could see it when I was shaving but I did nothing about it which was very foolish.”
Radiotherapy and chemotherapy followed, with several operations also required after O’Keeffe’s throat closed and he was unable to swallow or eat solid food, but, in hindsight, he still considers himself to be one of the lucky ones.
“When you are faced with something like that you just have to get on with it and I am very lucky,” he explains. “They told me from the start that, if it was the cancer they thought it was, and they were absolutely right, it was something they would be able to cure. There are a lot of people out there who get diagnosed with cancers that they can’t cure.
“I consider myself a lucky one.
“At the moment, it has been treated and it has gone away. It’s another four years before I get the actual all-clear but they are keeping a very close eye on me at the hospital every couple of months. Things are looking good at the moment so it is just a matter of keeping fingers crossed and hoping it stays away. The diabetes is well under control and so I am feeling fit and well.”
Fit and back in charge at Brecongill.
O’Keeffe had to lean on wife Andrea as he recovered but, against the odds, the yard enjoyed a successful season last year – the highlight being Satanic Beat’s victory in a York maiden in July, a winner that achieved a lifelong ambition for the trainer.
He maintains: “A lot of credit has to be given to my wife because she largely ran the show. I was in the background with the race planning but there was a lot of time where I couldn’t get out on the gallops to see the horses.
“I might be telling Andrea what work I wanted them to do but I couldn’t see them for myself. She was running the yard, driving the horsebox to the races. She was running the office. She was looking after the owners, the kids.
“It was quite amazing how much she managed to achieve. Satanic Beat was one of my ambitions realised. I used to play rugby on Knavesmire as a kid when I went to school in York and I used to run down from the school. I always dreamed of having a winner there.
“We’ve had a few near misses over the years and it was amazing. It was a time when I was still quite ill but it felt just as good – even if I wasn’t able to celebrate it as much as I would have liked. Now I’ve had one I want more. It’s not a case of ‘been there and done it’. The more the merrier.”
With only 17 horses in the Highbeck Lodge yard, quality is of vital importance.
Prize money levels, and the rising cost of fuel, continue to dent his business and the trainer refuses to run his animals for the sake of it.
“I run them where I think they can win,” O’Keeffe insists.
“Times are tricky and you’ve got to try to make it as viable as possible. Travelling a horse at great distance for very little prize money is just not economic sense at the moment.
“I have quite a lot of clients who don’t want their horses to run a long way away, especially if they didn’t have an obvious chance and that’s probably why we had nothing on the all-weather over the winter.
“We have noticed a little shift in owners’ attitude over the past couple of years. They are less willing to keep a horse that doesn’t pay its way, or going some way to doing that, even if it has ability to win.
“It’s not that they are less patient, or tolerant, it’s just that it doesn’t make sense any more.
“In the past, we would have had clients that kept a horse for several years without it winning a race – because it looked like it might. Now we have clients with horses that would definitely win races, or have won races, that are getting discarded because it doesn’t make any financial sense to keep them.
“We are short of numbers. The crazy thing is, if we had 30 or 35 full-paying but very bad, poor racehorses we would make a living. Financially we would better off. But I don’t want to train 35 bad horses. I’d much rather have the 17 we’ve got that I think I can win races with and, possibly, one or two better than average horses among that group.”
And on the future?
“What we really need is to expand, have a greater number of horses, that have got a decent level of ability and are being paid for. We need to produce one or two horses that will make a minor headline from time to time – just to keep our name out there.
“This industry is so competitive. There are so many good trainers. We need to firmly establish our name and, hopefully, people realise we can do the job with the right animal and get people to support us.”